Tacoma area has key role in saving orcas

Two orcas jump out of the water between Tacoma’s Titlow Beach and Point Fosdick in December 2014. A pod of about 12 was spotted during the Tahoma Audubon Christmas Bird Count that year.
Two orcas jump out of the water between Tacoma’s Titlow Beach and Point Fosdick in December 2014. A pod of about 12 was spotted during the Tahoma Audubon Christmas Bird Count that year. Photo courtesy of Michael Charest

When my husband and I moved to Tacoma in 1999, the Thea Foss Waterway ranked as one of the most toxic sites in the country. Less than 5 percent of the Puyallup River’s estuary habitat remained.

Today, I can see results of the decades-long effort to clean up pollution and return fish and wildlife habitat to health in and around Commencement Bay.

We have a long way to go to clean up Puget Sound and repair past habitat damage, but our progress offers hope and a blueprint for bringing orcas back from a tipping point towards extinction.

I serve on Gov. Jay Inslee’s Southern Resident Orca Recovery Task Force, which meets in Tacoma this coming week. The task force and working groups have devoted countless hours identifying orca recovery actions since May.

The reasons orcas are in such dire trouble are complex and far-reaching but boil down to three interrelated problems.

First, orcas are starving as chinook salmon populations have crashed throughout their range.

Second, noise and harassment from vessel traffic interfere with their ability to find fish and communicate with each other.

Third, toxic chemicals damage their immune and reproductive systems and harm juvenile salmon and herring, key parts of the food web that orcas depend on.

The task force is considering measures that range from relatively simple and actionable right away, to complex and ambitious actions that will take time and persistence to see results.

Creating go-slow zones for vessels when orcas are present is one example of quick actions, and every boater can take part.

Big cities like Tacoma will play a linchpin role in reducing water pollution. The Point Defiance stormwater facility, the largest of its kind in the world, represents the type of investment needed to stop pollution from reaching Puget Sound.

We need to speed up work already under way to clean up toxics that have accumulated in sediments in nearshore areas where salmon and forage fish feed and grow.

Thanks to local experts, we already know where habitat restoration is most needed to recover salmon runs. A new infusion of funding and community energy means we can replicate efforts like the project to expand floodplain habitat in Clark’s Creek, which was described in Matt Driscoll’s recent column in the TNT, to create more refuge for salmon and flood protection for people.

A bold plan and 2019 legislation and funding will be critical to make Puget Sound a safe and healthy place for orcas. But recovery will also come down to simple, selfless actions like those of community volunteers rebuilding resilient salmon habitat by planting one tree and placing one log at a time.

We must pick up the pace to address the urgent needs of orcas and salmon.

Images of orca mother Tahlequah, who carried her lifeless calf more than 1,000 miles, can make the challenge of recovering orcas seem overwhelming. The good news is we understand better than ever what’s needed to help them, and everyone has a role to play.

Mindy Roberts of Tacoma leads Washington Environmental Council’s People for Puget Sound program and is a member of the Southern Resident Orca Recovery Task Force appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee. Reach her by email at mindy@wecprotects.org


What: Southern Resident Orca Recovery Task Force meetings in Tacoma.

When: Oct. 17, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., followed by public comment period from 5 to 8 p.m.; Oct. 18, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: Landmark Convention Center, 47 St. Helens Ave.